I got a call early one morning from a dealer who was at a customer’s place checking on a stand complaint.
The dealer had been called to look at a field planted to one of our varieties that had only about two-thirds of its intended plant population.
The dealer said that the customer had filled six boxes of his twelve row planter with our seed and the other six boxes with a competitor’s seed. The competitor’s seed had a perfect stand while ours didn’t.
I knew right away that this was trouble.
I always told my dealers and sales reps to tell their customers to never split their planters (see 12 Reasons Why You Should Never Split Your Planter) because so many bad things can happen.
Besides, when you have a problem like this, where the twelve rows involved aren’t even planter rows, it becomes very hard to fix.
As with any spring trouble call, an immediate response is not optional. Spring complaints must be responded to at once because they always involve customers who are feeling the frustration of not getting their crop off to the timely start they intended.
I told the dealer to take the customer for coffee and I would be there in about an hour.
When I met my dealer and his customer at the field I saw that, sure enough, every twelve alternating rows had about 2/3 the intended population, while the other twelve rows were nearly perfect.
Both the dealer and the customer had dug up dozens of seedlings in the bad rows to show me how our variety had started germinating and then stopped for some reason.
The customer and MY dealer already had the problem narrowed down to bad seed – our bad seed.
I listened to both of them talk about how I needed to fix the problem. While responding with a nod of my head to let them know I was listening, I told them I wanted to look at the healthy corn first. This is always my starting point on a complaint call, especially when I am being compared to someone else.
I find it very helpful to rule out certain things before I pursue the obvious.
Both the dealer and the customer followed closely behind me as I walked into the twelve rows of perfect looking corn.
The customer began singing praises of this competitor’s quality, saying it was the quality like this that kept him buying from them every year.
The customer was busy becoming the star witness for the competition.
I didn’t listen to much of it because that type of unneeded information can actually influence the outcome of the call.
I also found it funny how my dealer felt obligated to support the customer’s praises of the competition, telling him how he understood why he bought from them. “They sure have great quality,” the dealer commented.
Again, I didn’t respond to these comments.
I just shut up and I let them talk as I dug.
I uprooted three consecutive plants in a row of the good corn and as I carefully looked at them, I felt a chill go down my spine.
I walked immediately to the twelve rows with the poor stand and dug up three consecutive plants.
Again, I got the same chilled feeling.
I stood up, looked at them and said, “I know what the problem is.”
They both smiled almost smugly, as if they already knew what the problem was.
I said, “You’ve got the hybrids mixed up. The good one is ours; the poor one is someone else’s.”
Their faces straightened and the customer immediately said, “Your crazy.”
He reached into the back pocket of his jeans and pulled out a small seed corn book. He showed me the planting order he had recorded in the book and then the dealer jumped in and pointed while the customer held the book.
“You’re wrong; he wrote it down. The bad one is ours,” said the dealer nervously as IF I was trying to get out of the problem.
Well, I don’t make these kinds of statements unless I know I’m right.
I stepped up my attack.
I informed them I was right because of my examination of the plants that had emerged normally and the size and color of the seed coat of the un-emerged ones.
They still didn’t believe me.
I asked the grower if he had any other fields of these two hybrids planted. He said he had another field of the competitive variety planted on a farm about ten miles away.
We drove to the field together, and as we approached it got very quiet in my vehicle.
You could see from the road that there were a lot of plants missing.
We dug seedlings from that field and compared them to the bad seedlings from the first field. They were identical.
The customer had, in fact, incorrectly recorded the two varieties in his book.
The next day I called my dealer and asked him what he had learned from the experience. He told me that he learned that a person needed to be an expert in hybrid identification to solve these kinds of problems and that I really knew my stuff.
I told him that it wasn’t about that at all.
I told him that it was about not walking into a Trouble Call situation believing you are the guilty party even when the customer has all this so-called evidence against you.
On every Trouble Call you are innocent until proven guilty.
I told him that I have never tried to avoid a complaint and never will.
But I will also never allow myself to use much of what the grower tells me to make decisions, until I have surveyed the entire situation myself. I told him that he had dug himself a very deep hole before I had arrived, and that he continued digging it deeper even after I showed up.
In fact he had dug the hole so deep that both he and I would fit into it.
This was the grower’s first time planting our products so it was almost natural for him to believe that his regular company could not be the bad one. In fact, I’m sure the grower was relieved when he first looked at this book and discovered that it was, according to his book, a problem with our product.
This was not a complaint by a sloppy farmer. This was a complaint by a highly respected grower who had simply made a mistake.
But he was so taken back by how I solved the problem that he decided to test his regular company rep also.
He called him out to look at the field, showed him his little book and asked him his opinion. The sales rep flunked the test big time.
The rep was so elated to find what he thought was a problem with our products, that he began bad-mouthing our company, our products and our reputation right on the spot.
The customer told him to leave his farm and never come back!